Poet Of The Week

Julia Guez

     April 6–12, 2020

Julia Guez is the author of In an Invisible Glass Case Which Is Also a Frame (Four Way Books, 2019). She has been awarded the Discovery / Boston Review Poetry Prize, a Fulbright fellowship and the John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. Her poetry, prose and translations have previously appeared in Poetry, Guernica, the Guardian, Kenyon Review, BOMB and the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers and works at Teach For America New York.

Author photo by Wesley Mann

This, Winter

 

Busy the hands with backgammon,

tell me about the year.

The wifely chamomile and Klonopin

no help, have a saltine.

This is to say, I understand.

Once submersible, I am now a buoy.

Fatigue is the new normal.

 

—“This, Winter” from In an Invisible Glass Case Which Is Also a Frame (c) 2019 by Julia Guez. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This is my Ars. It has a season / state (“Winter”). Begins in the realm of entertainment (“backgammon”). There’s a direct address (“Tell me about the year”), an invitation to dialogue. The piece moves, then, from the realm of medicine (“the wifely chamomile and Klonopin”) to the realm of the sacred, offering a kind of communion (“saltine”). What it delivers in the end, though, is a poem whose sound is wrapped around a basic truth: Making our way through all this weather isn’t easy. But it might be made easier knowing we’re not alone. This condition is a shared one (“Fatigue is the new normal”).

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a novel. In Speedboat, Renata Adler uses the word “hostage” to refer to a fetus conceived nonconsensually in the city of New York circa 1971. In Hostage, I am gesturing towards a parent hostage to the rigors of raising her child in the same city (not the same at all) thirty-five years later.

Adler’s protagonist is a writer named Jen Fain; in my novel, the protagonist is Fain’s middle-aged daughter, Daniela. With her wife, Sheppard, Dan is trying to make a family, make art and make a home in the city of New York. The cost of living (in particular, the cost of rent and childcare in a neighborhood that’s gentrifying fast) force Fain and Sheppard to consider living elsewhere. This, they reason, would give them a chance to be middle-class. Some of the animus activated by the election dramatized midway through the book makes it hard for the couple to see themselves at home anywhere they might afford a house, though. The city, they reason, is the only place they can be queer and raise a family born of the so-called Gayby Boom.

Inspired by Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History, the novel explores the relationship between so-called red and blue politics, urban and exurban contexts and a rent-burdened generation’s attempt to find a sense of home somewhere they can really root themselves.

What’s a good day for you?

Before the outbreak, a good day allowed me to have breakfast with my family, then walk our son to school. It allowed me time enough to go to BLINK on my way to work. I would have the wherewithal to listen to one of my podcasts the whole way there. A good day allowed me to do some good work with some really good people to help support teachers and students doing some really good things in classrooms across the city. It allowed me to be home in time to have dinner with my family. A good day allowed me to play a round of Go Fish with our children. We might pop some popcorn, practice our sight words and number bonds, then take a bath. A good day allowed me to read to them after dinner (which would always begin with us going around the table saying what we’re most grateful for). After we read, a good day allowed me to bring each of our sons a toothbrush, bring them something cold, then rest with the oldest in the “big” bed while our two-year-old did a few more handstands in the crib. Once they were down, a good day allowed me to watch the PBS NewsHour while my wife went running (which would involve several playlists, bridges, rivers and boroughs). Once she had showered, hair still up in a towel, we might have a cocktail, watch a show, my body a chair back for her body. A good day then allowed us to read side by side until she was ready for bed. At that point, the whole house quiet, I would work on notes for the book (which is almost there and closer than I think, I think) until I, too, was ready. Then I would do a body scan, take two melatonin and get to sleep.

After the outbreak, a good day means I can breathe without working at it, trusting one breath to follow the next without me having to will that process along. There is no tightness, no pain, weight or warmth in my solar plexus. Nor are there wave-like movements through me, through the city, state and world of something cold cold cold. There is no irregularity, no strain in the way my heart does what our sweet hearts do so well. I can find my way out of a fetal position, sit upright, back against a pillow. There aren’t sirens outside the window. When there are sirens, several of them, a steady stream, I have a strategy for that. Taking the deepest breath I can, I say, May you be safe. May you be free from suffering. May you find ease of being soon. A good day means I want to eat and I can, though if I think about how our government has helped us to set our feet for this, eating anything at all becomes hard again. A good day means I can listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (in my case, for the first time). I can read a paragraph of Don Quixote. Watch part of a lecture given by the brilliant Roberto González Echevarría and, for a time, that can be all I am focusing on. A good day means I do not carry, inside of me, something that would pose a risk to anyone. Something that has already taken far too many lives (far too soon). A good day means we eat our meals at the same time, in the same apartment, if not at the same table. I can hear my children doing yoga before bed. Hear them playing trains. I can hear them FaceTiming with my mother, who reads to them. A good day means I do not dread the night. Do not dread the symptoms or the visions. A good day means night can be a time of quiet, a time to sort, to make bargains and promises and plans even if they’re all provisional. A good day means there will be something on the other side of this—not sure when, not sure what—something we make all together and, also, my wife and I will be sleeping in the same bed.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

A few years ago, I began leading a team of teachers and coaches based in Brooklyn. Seemed right for me to be based here, too.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

After my launch party at Powerhouse Arena, a handful of friends took me out to Superfine. There was a band … I remember the horns … and, so, there was dancing. The hostess insisted on pouring me a water glass full of mezcal (which means that there was some singing, too). It was all so festal, not unlike a wedding, wedding this book to the world it’s all about. Holding my wife’s hand beneath the archway at the end of the night made me feel, at that moment, like we were exactly where we belonged.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

Mutual care and concern for the people we are, as well as care and concern for our work as writers. That’s what it’s all about, in my mind. Grateful to have found that here (and online with those who aren’t here, but play an important role in the community regardless).

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Ricardo Maldonado, Sam Ross and I call ourselves the Four Way Gays; I am a fan of Four Way Books, a fan of Maldonado and Ross and a fan of The Life Assignment and Company. Jay Deshpande isn’t in Brooklyn anymore. (He is a Stegner Fellow, living in San Francisco). I am a fan of his and a fan of Love the Stranger. t’ai freedom ford, Emily Brandt and I recently read from our new(est) books at Quimby’s Bookstore. I have been a fan of them both for a very long time; I am a real fan of & more black and Falsehood.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Three mentors—Lucie Brock-Broido, Mark Strand and Timothy Donnelly—have been particularly generous with me ever since we crossed paths at Columbia.

Two of them are no longer (physically) here. The other just came out with a beautiful new book called The Problem of the Many.

What a wonder to be anywhere near that energy for a time, to be brought under those wings.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

C. A. Conrad recently posted “CORONA DAZE 16” on Instagram:

we are 2nd plague sisters

with daily breath rituals

bridge of breath for a world of failing lungs

remember the ones we want to see again

remember them in the deepest breath

That “we,” the being brought (immediately) into the “sisterhood” resisting this “plague” all together, replacing bread with something even more important, that is, our “daily breath rituals,” building a “bridge” to “remember[ing] the ones we want to see again” in “the deepest breath” is a gift and a timely one.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

There are so many. When this is all said and done, I can see myself (finally) reading The Decameron.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I am a planner. I have a list. It is long, changes often. For all my plans, I like there being plenty of play in the system. I am open to recommendations from siblings and friends and writers I follow on Twitter and Instagram about what I need to read next (or be reading alongside what I am reading now); when I read with someone, I like to buy their book if I don’t already have one at home or in my cart / queue.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

A crown, a crown of sonnets, a sonnet crown. Katie Ford’s collection If You Have to Go and also Samantha Zighelboim’s The Fat Sonnets both opened me up to the force a sequence of sonnets can gather.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I read and write here at home. I also write well in the mountains outside of Callicoon (in the spring, summer and fall). I can write well in Montauk, in the winter.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

BAM. The ferry landings. All the bookstores, every single one, all the libraries (especially ours here in Williamsburg). In the summer, the pool and the pop-up pools. Our children like to ride the carousel in DUMBO. (Let me be clear that we like to ride the carousel, too). Most of the parks, especially Prospect. Kings County Distillery for rye with my wife: midday on a Saturday when our sons are both asleep in the stroller, the garden is overwhelmed with mint and impatiens and we have the patio all to ourselves.

Why Brooklyn?

Because our sons have grown up believing they have dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins (and so many of them are based here).